Hospitality Opens Borders

As I move from field work to analysis and writing, I am seeing my interviews through new lenses and perspectives. In that spirit, here is a teaser of a chapter that I am working on for a book on migration associated with the Jesuit network here in Mexico.

This year, The Jesuit Network for Migrants is especially focused on a theme of “Hospitality Opens Borders.” One of the documents developing the theme, entitled “If You Want Peace, Be Hospitable,” explains that in its historical tradition hospitality was “a custom that consisted in not being hostile to “others” (foreigners, neighbors, travelers) who arrive in the community.”

As I reflect on hospitality in the context of return migration, I am struck by the irony of this definition. It wouldn’t seem that return migrants are “others.” Most of those that I have interviewed have returned to the same communities where they were born, even the same houses. They are neither foreigners nor neighbors nor travelers. And indeed in many cases, their communities receive them back warmly as fellow countrymen.

And yet there are several who are received with hostility rather than either sense of common birthplace or a sense of hospitality. Because of their time in the US, they become strangers in their own community. Being in another country changes a person, especially if they have lived there for many years or, in some cases, for almost their whole life.

Some of the communities that welcome me with open arms as a foreigner reject the return migrants who in their appearance and way of acting are neither quite foreigners nor quite natives. Particularly if they return with tattoos or a different style of dress. The tattoos and the dress style mean that they are gangsters. Or at least, those are the stereotypes that people have shared with me. One woman who worked in the music scene in New York told me about how she came back with a goth look to her rural community in Puebla, with piercings, black clothing, and nails painted black. The doctors who attended her when she gave birth to her baby made her take out all of her piercings and her mom and other community pressures forced her to change her clothing style.

The use of English is also looked down upon. For youth who have practically grown up in the US, it might be the most comfortable language to use but the communities think they are just boasting about their ability. Other Mexicans tell them “we are in Mexico, speak Spanish.”

As a foreigner my actions, way of speech are a novelty, but the differences that community members see in the ways that return migrants act is seen as a threat. In the Bible, the expert in the law asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?” and Jesus radically expands the narrow idea of that word. But at the same time, sometimes the hardest hospitality is not that toward a foreigner or a traveler but rather hospitality toward a neighbor who for some reason or another is different from you and your idea of how they should be. Sometimes the most difficult borders to open are not those between people who look different but rather those who look alike.

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1 Response to Hospitality Opens Borders

  1. Peg Bowden says:

    I am in Alamos, Sonora for a month, and rented a little house. The people have been curious about the presence of this silver-haired gringa in their plaza, but unfailingly polite and gracious. I feel the warmth and hospitality each morning on my walk around town. As a stranger, I feel welcome. Peg

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